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Comicscape - September 8, 2004

The Darkening Comics Universe

By Tony Whitt     September 08, 2004

In this panel from AVENGERS #500, She-Hulk and Hawkeye inspect the aftermath of a devastating attack that claimed the life of their teammate, Ant-Man.
© Marvel Comics



A woman is raped, after which her husband's co-workers brainwash him. Another woman, after being raped, is cut into hundreds of cubed 3D jigsaw puzzle pieces. A team of heroes go off on a simple mission, only to be slaughtered to the man. A woman gouges herself in the eye with a sword to be more like her one-eyed father and to win back his respect. A man comes to his mother's house to discover that his foe has snapped her spine and stuffed her into the oven. A woman's face is incinerated, and several months later one of her teammates gets her lungs flash-fried when all the oxygen in them is turned to water. Two explosions take out the headquarters of another team, leading one of them to say "I feel like I'm losing my mind! Why is this happening?"

She's not the only one who feels this way. Over the last six months to a year, there's been an undeniable darkening in the comics universes of the Big Two, and it's not confined to the imprints ostensibly meant for adults, such as Vertigo,


Icon, and MAX. David Fausel, writing in response to my review of AVENGERS #500, hit the nail right on the head about what's going on, though he linked it more narrowly to the emergence of terrorism in several contemporary comic book plots: "Ever since Sept 11th, there has been this pervasive curtain hanging over just about everything to make everything in comics serious. Serious!! No pure escapism anymore; it has to all deal with 'real world' issues and the like. You know, years back when comics strayed and slipped a toe over that line and tried to address things like that, true real-world issues, it was good it was on a limited level, and that's where it had to stay. But nowadays, the whole entire foot is over the line..." While I might disagree with David that those prior stories that addressed real-world issues had to stay at a limited level, he's absolutely right about two other things: the darkening of comics began not long after September 11th, and there's very little that's escapist about them anymore.

Most of the examples cited above, admittedly, are the most extreme ones (and my thanks to J.A. Fludd, Bobby, and Stephen on the GLA list for pointing out a few I hadn't heard of), but they illustrate acts occurring in so-called "mainstream" comics that would have been considered irresponsible at best and reprehensible at worst in the past. Even those titles that have held onto escapism only by the skin of their teeth, like X-STATIX, have relied on such tactics, as in the final issue of that series in which the entire team is killed for no apparent reason. (Of course, the reason is apparent their book has been cancelled but narratively the reason is far less clear.) And when it comes to more "mainstream" books such as OUTSIDERS, TEEN TITANS, GREEN LANTERN, and others, the violence factor has ratcheted up in such a way that even devoted readers are taking notice.

In the case of at least two of the more extreme titles - AVENGERS and IDENTITY CRISIS - this is being done deliberately. Both Bendis and Meltzer have set out to create circumstances in which the old rules do not apply, in which randomness wins out over good rather than good winning out over evil, and in which we're forced to look at old heroes in surprising new ways. To a certain extent, such changes are necessary, even welcome when books like AVENGERS, for example, roll along the same path for too long, they begin to calcify to the point that there's no longer any real reason to read them. But that doesn't make seeing our heroes undergoing their own private September 11th, or witnessing them brainwashing a villain after he's raped the spouse of one of them, any easier to take.

There's also another reason why all this is happening, and it ties right back into the fact that this darkening trend began after September 11th. In the pre-9/11 world, comics were still in that limbo between being realistic and being escapist for every plot element that gave the characters lives just like ours, there were at least two or three that showed how different they were, how much easier in some ways they had it. Sure, they dealt with atrocities from time to time but only from time to time, not on a daily basis like we do whenever we open a newspaper or turn on CNN. Sure, there was rape, murder, brutality in their world but when you're out trying to save the entire world from destruction, how much of it do you actually see face-to-face? As relevant as comics had slowly become over the last 40-50 years, they were still comfortable and safe, and this kept them from being

In this panel from AVENGERS #500, She-Hulk and Hawkeye inspect the aftermath of a devastating attack that claimed the life of their teammate, Ant-Man.

quite relevant enough. In the post-9/11 world, however, things began to change gradually at first, but it didn't take long for the effect to snowball. Sadly, I can't point to one moment in contemporary comics that marks that change, though if I had to pick one I'd have to say it was the "black" issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN depicting the aftermath of September 11th that finally broke that wall down. Nothing terribly gratuitous or violent about that issue, of course but it did serve to remind comics readers that comics could mirror the real world even more directly than they were then doing. Suddenly, comic book heroes no longer had it so easy. No longer were they simply fighting idiots like Batroc the Leaper or previously harmless villains like the Penguin they were now also having to deal with the villains that we have to deal with: political and/or religious extremists, murderers, rapists, sociopaths. Such characters had existed in comics before, but more as a side-item. In that world, for instance, so-called "heroes" like the Punisher and villains like Deadpool, characters who took lives on a regular basis and in the most extreme ways, were the exception. After September 11th, they've become the rule.

The question is whether this push to make comics mirror the real world more closely hasn't gone a tad bit too far. Readers have responded IDENTITY CRISIS as the excellent series that it is, but they've also responded in shock and horror to the rape, murder, and overall brutality our heroes are facing. The murder of Kyle Rayner's mother would have been hard enough to face, but the extreme way in which she is murdered makes us wonder exactly whether it was absolutely necessary to depict it that way. (The reader who reported that one to me asked that very question and suggested that the book might not be on his list for much longer.) As a long-time X-STATIX and Peter Milligan fan, I'm still reeling at the decision to kill off the entire team rather than simply ending the book. And I'm sure I'm not the only one haunted by all those images in AVENGERS #500 and #501. Comics may have become more relevant, and they may include more of an element of "risk" (to use the word chosen by Dan DiDio when I interviewed him about the ethos behind IDENTITY CRISIS), but they're also a lot more likely to turn the average reader off and God help us all if another Wertham gets hold of some of them and decides to launch another crusade. (Of course, kids simply don't read comics that much anymore, but even with the "ratings" codes on Marvel books, one wonders what'll happen if one of these books falls into the wrong hands...) The bigger, more likely, worry is that the very tactics the Big Two are using to make comics more relevant to their readers, in an effort to bring in a larger readership, may just as easily push many new and old readers away.

Please, don't think for one moment that I'm about to advocate a return to the Comics Code, or a tightening of restrictions in comics writing and art, or a return to kinder, gentler times. I'm not advocating anything. The darkening of the comic universe is a palpable thing, however, and as such it needs to be reported, observed, critiqued. I may not always like opening up the latest issue of a book and seeing a beloved character raped, or another's head set on fire. On the other hand, I don't deny the narrative power of such moments. It's only when the narrative is made up of nothing but such moments that it loses power and veers into the realm of gratuitousness. The WEBSTER'S REVISED UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY defines "gratuitous" as "not called for by the circumstances; without reason [or] cause..." If that sounds familiar to contemporary comics readers, it should.

I know how potentially volatile this issue is, and I'd like to hear your comments on it, so send them to me via the web site contact address here or to me directly. In two weeks, I'm going to cover all the books that have been cancelled in the last year at the Big Two, and I'd like your thoughts on which ones should not have been cancelled and which should have gone a lot sooner! As for next week, I'll be interviewing Regent St. Claire and CINESCAPE's own Anthony C. Ferrante regarding their new book candyapplered, so if you have any burning questions you'd like me to ask Messrs. St. Claire and Ferrante when I talk to them, send them before 5pm (CST) on Friday, September 10th. And remember, if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title. I do the HTML coding on this column every week, and having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! I don't know quite what's going on next week yet, but in the meantime here's this week's listings:


The canine crimefighter investigates a crime that's been pinned to Velma's cousin - always knew that girl was bad news - in SCOOBY DOO #88 ($2.25).

OK, so now it's the Hulk's early stories that need retelling for a younger, hipper audience? Oy vey! MARVEL AGE: HULK #1 is out this week - but someone higher up caught a clue and priced it at $1.75! Now if they'd only do the same with their first two Marvel Age titles...

"War Games" Act 2


continues in BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #183 ($2.50) and NIGHTWING #97 ($2.25). Guess that day's delay wasn't nearly enough, huh? Of course, if you want to avoid the whole mess altogether, you can pick up the BATMAN: WAR DRUMS trade paperback for $17.95, collecting DETECTIVE COMICS #s 790-796 and ROBIN #s 126-128...oh, wait, that's the storyline leading up to "War Games". Geez! I'd say you could escape it all in GOTHAM CENTRAL #23 ($2.50), but even they are reacting to "War Games". There's just no getting away from it, is there?

The super-powered serial killer in BLOODHOUND #3 ($2.95) isn't one of the examples I mentioned above, by the way but can you remember the last time we had this many books from one company centering on heroes going specifically after killers?

Bad enough that Batroc the Leaper is still in CAPTAIN AMERICA #31 ($2.99), but it also features Mr. Hyde, Hydra...and, of course, the Red Skull. Can you even remember a Cap story that didn't end up featuring the bloody Red Skull at some point or other? Sigh. I miss the Marvel Knights run of the title - even when it featured the Red Skull, in fact...

Wow, from famine last week to feast this week! Dark Horse is shipping a ton of good stuff, including BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL #93 ($2.99);
the GO GIRL VOL 1: THE TIME TEAM trade paperback for $5.95;
GRENDEL: DEVIL'S REIGN #4 (Of 7, $3.50); SPYBOY: FINAL EXAM #4 ($2.99); and last but not least, STAR WARS: EMPIRE #24 ($2.99). If you bought Dark Horse comics here, you'd be broke by now!

I rather think they should have reserved the title DOOM PATROL: CRAWLING FROM THE WRECKAGE for the storyline immediately following Byrne's eventual departure from the book - it would be far more apt... Anyway, this trade paperback goes for $19.95.

Juris has been told he must either kill the Angel or give up his job. Hmm...girlfriend, job, girlfriend, job... What sort of benefits package is he getting again? The answer to many questions (though probably not that one) are in FALLEN ANGEL #15 ($2.95).

And another one's gone, another one's gone, another one bites the dust... Whether the Focus title TOUCH was actually any good or not I really couldn't say as I have not read it - and now I won't get a chance, as issue #6 ($2.50) is the final issue. So much for all those "bad touch" jokes I'd been saving up...

There's another

Brian Haberlin's cover to BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #183.

shocking revelation in GREEN ARROW #42 ($2.50) this week, and hopefully it's not about Ollie this time. At the rate they've been darkening this character, I fully expect to find out that he hangs Black Canary up by her fishnets over the bed every night or something... Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you.

From Humanoids this week comes the WHITE LAMA VOL 1: REINCARNATION trade paperback for $17.95,
yet another Jodrowsky tale, no doubt full of "proto"-thises, "mega"-thats, and people with cybernetic crotches...

No IDENTITY CRISIS this week, but you lucky people do get IDENTITY DISC #4 (Of 5, $2.99). That's compensation enough, isn't it? ...Well?!

Image is trying to outdo even Dark Horse this week in terms of sheer product - we're getting CASEFILES: SAM & TWITCH #10 ($2.50); DEEP SLEEPER #4 (Of 4) ($2.95); GRAY AREA #3 (Of 3) ($5.95); STRYKEFORCE #5 (Of 5, $2.99); the latest issue of Jason Henderson's SWORD OF DRACULA, issue #6 ($2.95); that girl who looks nothing like Angelina Jolie in TOMB RAIDER #45 ($2.99); VICTORY VOL 2 #1 (Of 4, $2.95), in no less than two covers; and last but not least, Mark Millar's well-named WANTED #5 (Of 6, $2.99)!

Wonder Woman considers her own mortality as the pretty maudlin storyline "The Pain of the Gods" continues in JLA #105 ($2.25). I'd still like to see an "I screwed up" story of this sort with Zatanna telling us how many spells she got wrong until she went to see a therapist for her lisp.

Rex Tyler - Lord, is he still alive? - travels into the timestream to rescue his son in the first half of a two-parter in JSA #65 ($2.50).

Chris Frost, one of our readers, pointed out to me that, despite Marvel's trumpeting this year as their fifth anniversary, it's actually not - the imprint was launched in fall 1998, so 2004 would be the sixth anniversary. What the heck...? Oh, well - MARVEL KNIGHTS: SPIDER-MAN #6 ($2.99) is out this week. Whether you're celebrating five or six years of such titles, this one is worth celebrating.

The first storyline comes to a shocking conclusion - but don't they all, really? - in THE PULSE #5 ($2.25).

On one web site, the copy for THE PUNISHER #11 ($2.99) reads, " Finn Cooley's got the kind of face only a mother could love... and Frank Castle can't wait to put a hollow point right between his eyes." Nah, comics aren't getting darker at all... Of course, this is a MAX title, but it doesn't read much differently from when the book was a regular ol' mag, does it?



goes into space in a one-shot story in SHE-HULK #7 ($2.99), wherein she encounters Beta-Ray Bill, Gladiator, and Adam Warlock - and yet, despite all that, I have a feeling I'm still going to like it!

So, Spidey's still turning into a spider in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #19 ($2.25), and this no doubt has something to do with his upcoming induction into the Avengers - oops! Well, you'd have heard about it somewhere, I'm sure. He'll be back to normal by then - if you can call being an Avenger "normal" after that book finally settles down again...

I'm not sure what to think of a man and wife super-villain pair named Sodom and Gomorrah appearing in ACTION COMICS #819 ($2.50), but I'm afraid that, if I do think about it too long, bad jokes will ensue... There's also the SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL VOL 3 trade paperback for $19.95, collecting stories from the good ol' days when a Byrne redo didn't spell disaster, or vampires...

Keith Giffen's first tremendous storyline gets collected in the THANOS VOL 5: SAMARITAN trade paperback for $14.99. That should be enough to make anyone buy it, really!

Brunhilda visits Asgard as an "exchange student" in THOR: SON OF ASGARD #8 ($2.99). Where the heck is she matriculating - Valhalla U?

Nothing but ULTIMATE X-MEN out of the Ultimates universe this week, but whoa... Gambit gets all the gumbo in issue #51 ($2.25) whilst the ULTIMATE X-MEN VOL 9: THE TEMPEST trade paperback for $10.99 features the death of someone...other than Gambit, I imagine. Don't worry, it's the X-Men - whoever it is will be back, sure as God made lil' green apples.

The glut of good stuff continues as Vertigo gives us 100 BULLETS #53 $2.50; the final issue of BITE CLUB, #6 (Of 6, $2.95); CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #4 (Of 6, $2.95); and
FABLES #29 ($2.50).



you heard me correctly earlier - Warlock is appearing in SHE-HULK this month - and he's getting his own series, too! WARLOCK #1 ($2.99) is out this week, hopefully destined to last longer than six issues, or 20, or however many these things last nowadays...

There's all sorts of stuff in Wildstorm's GEN 13: ORDINARY HEROES trade paperback for $14.95 - even pinups! And here I thought we'd seen the last of those things...

Nothing against Greg Rucka, Phil Jimenez, or any of the other luminaries that have done this book since its relaunch, but do you want to see what these guys are striving to top? Then check out the WONDER WOMAN: CHALLENGE OF THE GODS trade paperback for $19.95, reprinting more of George Perez's run in WONDER WOMAN #7-14. It's good s**t, Maynard.

And finally, take that last phrase, take out the "good," and you've got X-FORCE #2 ($2.99) - and, from all accounts, that goes for X-MEN - THE END: BOOK ONE - DREAMERS AND DEMONS #3 (Of 6, $2.99), as well. Oh, well, at least some people are enjoying DISTRICT X #5 ($2.99). And hey, it's made it to issue #5!

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think by e-mailing us here!

Comicscape is our weekly Comics column.


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